This February, Culture Shock games released their long-time-coming title We Are Chicago. The game had been in development for over four years and the concept won several awards through 2015-16. The intention was to bring awareness to a troubled Chicago and to help you feel the pain of what it’s like to live a life of constant fear. The narrative and concept might have had potential, but the final release misses the mark and is far from award-winning.
The introduction to the game and the characters seems promising, but the visuals are not up to par.
The textures were very flat, as were the characters. After a brief chat with a couple of friends, you’re approached by an ominous-looking young man with a permanent scowl, which, in We Are Chicago, is the true sign of a gangster. He threatens you over who your cousin represents and flashes a piece – that’s a gun for those of us suburbanites who likely won’t understand.
Next, it’s off to math class, where you have to take a test while all these thoughts of gangsters and what it’s like to live in South Side, Chicago distract you from your task. I found this particular function well thought out. You’re presented with a math question which is overlaid with reflections on the previous encounter. Your options for consideration are things like: How will I keep my sister safe, I need to go to college and get a profession not a job, People say they don’t make better money after college anyway, People in the suburbs don't have to deal with this. The event does paint a pretty dire picture of the circumstances, and you are compelled to see what happens next. The problem is, that’s where the innovation stops. You spend the rest of your time neglecting to watch your sister at the park while you talk about how dangerous the park is. There are other interactions, like walking across the street when a person who scowls real hard walks on the same side of the sidewalk, and even if you wanted to, you can’t continue walking: the people you’re walking with force you to cross, stopping half way and ultimately walking down the middle of the street.
It’s hard to say exactly where We Are Chicago falls apart; there are just too many rough edges. The textures are unfinished: when walking down the street, which you spend a lot of time doing, the parked cars have no details to them – and there’s no traffic at all. The buildings similarly have no definition. While they may be low-resolution textures of actual buildings, which is a possibility, flat, uninteresting structures have no place in a modern game except perhaps to add backdrop, far in the background. The biggest issue to me, though, is constant focus-switching of the field of view. There are a few moments when you’re able to roam freely, but there’s not much to that. Otherwise, you’re on rails during events and your vision is limited to about 90 degrees. During these events, if you look at certain areas, such as the left side of the street (where nothing is) everything becomes clear, but if you look, say, at the people to whom who you’re talking, everything becomes blurry. Sometimes even the speaker was blurred; the ultimate effect of the constant refocusing and blurring was nausea-inducing. It didn’t matter how compelling the narrative was, I just couldn’t take it anymore.
The characters of We Are Chicago did not exonerate the experience, either. While they tried to give the characters more life than the rest of the neighborhood, this, too, was roughly done. The primary character was not voiced, I assume that was to allow you to take on the persona, and reflect yourself onto the character – a popular and effective video game trope – however, the plentiful dialogue from ‘your’ character undid this effect. Culture Shock attempted to make the characters more personal by adding facial expressions, but these were basically eyebrow movement; at one point during dinner, a friend, my mother, and my sister just sat there staring at me with their cold, dead, lifeless eyes. No one was speaking – hell, no one was blinking. It was so awkward I was nonplussed. Luckily a gunshot right outside was a welcome reprieve from having to ‘interact’ with the family.
There were fantastic intentions behind this game. However, good intentions do not make a great game. We Are Chicago raises real issues that still plague parts of America, and encourage young people to stay away from gang violence, and this goal is praiseworthy – it’s just not an enjoyable gaming experience.